In its broadest sense, purpose is a clear articulation of the positive impact that your organisation has on society. It is more than the achievement of a revenue value or sales figure, it is greater than a single brand proposition or the specification of your products or services. It goes beyond the singular, direct experience of your customers, your employees or your shareholders. It is about the contribution your organisation makes to the world, above and beyond the immediate and demanding metrics that make up your strategic plan.
Organisations with a compelling and clearly articulated purpose are more successful in attracting and retaining staff. They are proven to have greater relationships with their customers, deliver greater shareholder value and outperform their competitors in terms of performance, productivity, longevity and culture.
As with every aspect of the PRIDE model, purpose also has a strong personal dimension. People have emotions, aspirations and dreams. Their sense of purpose is defined by their personal desires and wishes, by their needs and ambitions, at different times in different ways. People will feel a sense of Purpose inside and outside their role at work and the emphasis may change, depending on where they are in their lives, and their feelings of responsibility for themselves or others.
A statement of purpose bestows importance and significance on the everyday activities that occupy people at work. But it has to be authentic. People, generally, do not get up in the morning to fulfil a mission, to save the world, or to implement a strategy. They get up in the morning because someone needs them to do something and they are driven to do it. Purpose feeds into that drive and creates a positive energy, so that - at best - employees come to work not only because they are being paid, but also because the organisation’s purpose appeals to their higher values and emotions, and they are committed to their role within it.
And herein lies the business case. When people can fulfil their own ambitions and at the same time identify with and share a sense of purpose with the organisation that employs them, they are more motivated, more resourceful, and are more effective in their roles. People with purpose are happier, healthier and have a high level of self-esteem.
In this chapter we will look at how different organisations define purpose, how they then deliver it in their specific organisation, and how that is played out and taken on by the people that work for them.
For some organisations, purpose to society (also referred to as social purpose) has been there at the very beginning of their inception; it is the raison d’etre for an organisation’s existence. It has been defined, articulated, and has served as an essential guiding vision for all to see. Think public sector, foundations and charities; think healthcare and educational bodies. Their core service offering and daily activity are directly connected to their purpose. Customers, beneficiaries, employees and other stakeholders are most likely to be involved in the organisation precisely because of its commitment to society and thus share common motivations and values. For these companies, purpose is intrinsic to their organisational purpose.
For others, social purpose has been articulated as a distinct motivation underpinning the core activity but not defining it. The products and services of the organisation are not unique but the way they are produced, or the way the organisation conducts itself, is. Think of The Body Shop, whose founder was an entrepreneur trying to make a living, who decided on the skincare and cosmetics sector, but wanted also to prove that business could be a force for social and environmental good. Anita Roddick declared this motivation with her employees from day one and expected them to reflect it. She developed a social purpose for The Body Shop that was demonstrated not only in what the company did (i.e. the products it created) but also in the way it operated (i.e. championing fair trade in the cosmetics supply chain) and the causes it supported. Its social purpose went beyond the provision of cosmetics and beyond its time as an independently owned manufacturer, surviving intact 40 years on, ten years after the founder’s death and now part of the corporate brand, L’Oreal.
For many perfectly reputable organisations, an articulation of social purpose can take longer to emerge. Most commercial businesses are founded to meet a market need or fill a market gap, and their organisational purpose is to fill that gap, make money for their shareholders and provide jobs for their employees. Often, with maturity, with scale and with influence, when initial organisational goals have been fulfilled or proved, leaders of these organisations may begin to seek and realise deeper meaning and relevance in what they are doing. Realising the power they have or their desire to influence society, they begin to think about a social or ‘higher purpose’ that is borne out by their success and a real contribution to society. Think P&G, Unilever and Virgin, all of whom were established and grown by visionary entrepreneurs with a social conscience, who are true to their organisational purpose but at the same time invest time and resources into undertaking some broader responsibility to society as well.
For others, a statement of purpose has emerged after more negative circumstances, when organisations have perhaps been under threat or failing and forced to reassess and reinvent themselves to adapt to a change in market conditions. They may want to differentiate themselves in a competitive market by adopting a higher purpose, or they may need to redefine their organisational purpose to regain support from investors or customers, or even to survive a crisis.
For many, many organisations, however, purpose, as a way of defining relevance and meaning, is simply unchartered territory. Products are made, services are provided, transactions are completed. But purpose is not on the map, it is not articulated and its benefits are as yet unexplored.
In your role at work, you are not necessarily responsible for all that has gone before or all that is going to happen in the future. But wherever you are in your own or your organisation’s story, you can find moments of opportunities to make an impact. If you are a leader or an influencer of an organisation without a clear declaration of purpose, then addressing this is one of those opportunities, as the topic is gaining ground as a significant factor influencing stakeholder engagement with your brand.